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Why Support and Preserve Bookstores?

(This essay was originally written by Michelle Barron, owner of the Book House, as part of our currently running Kickstarter Campaign. If nothing else, I would add my personal reason for preserving bookstores – like so many things we only recognise in retrospect, the world would be a poorer place without them. )

We have been asked “why support a bookstore”? Isn’t it a dying industry with “everything” on the internet and ebooks and a changing world and economy? Are bookstores a thing of the past?  Should’t  we just give up and sell everything for pennies on the dollar, probably putting lifetime collections in the recycling bin . . .  After all you can just google whatever you want.  Or find it for a dollar on Amazon. Why hold on to collections of books?  Are we just obsessive hoarders? 

Well I could get all sentimental and bring up all the tired old arguments about the “smell” of old books or how they look nice on a bookshelf and nothing like holding a book in your hands.  And there is also the “educational benefits”  of a community bookstore, “cultural” events, a place to  gather  and celebrate the love of these unique archival objects called books. 

But is that really enough?  If bookselling was such a good business model why is it so rarely profitable?  Why can’t we get a loan?  Why do we need help to open up a new location for our bookstore?.  Why pay to move, store, and reinforce floors to hold 250,000 books when it costs so much?  Why, if so many people love books and  bookstores (which we hear everyday) are so many stores struggling and closing?   Why are libraries throwing away books at record levels?  Is it just a matter of supply and demand?  Are books worthless or over priced and we should just sell them as cheap as possible like so many widgets? Does nobody want them anymore? Perhaps bookstores are just “showrooms” now, museums of the past like horses and buggies

I would argue that it is much more complicated than that.  In some sense bookstores are the canaries in the coal mine of serious changes in our economic value structure.  Cheap goods, produced by cheap labor, huge companies, box stores, distribution channels, etc.  But I’m not going to ramble about that ( although there are many points to be made on that subject)  I’m not an economist, just a business owner trying to work on margins, and pay bills, and manage day by day.

But here is an undeniable fact.  Books are not only conveyors of information and stories and ideas, beautiful art and memories, but they are very definitely tangible OBJECTS.  Books are heavy, they are dense, they cannot survive water, dampness, bugs, or fire.  They are perishable, but given proper care can outlast a lifetime, and often survive for centuries.  Books carry smells, can mold and oxidize.  They hold the DNA traces of former readers.  They are made of trees.  They are organic, alive, they breathe, they rot, the can turn back into dirt, they are recyclable.

Books take time to “digest”.   There are good books and obsolete books, rare books and worthless books.  They take time to catalog, to process, to tell the difference between them. You really cannot “judge a book by its cover”.  Books need to Be INTERACTED with to have value.   Books need time to be discovered and shared.  They need quiet places.  Sometimes a great book or author can linger for years before finding its reader… 

A pile of old books is very hard to deal with and often takes more time to pack, carry, sort, store, catalogue, shelve, display, locate, research, and maybe eventually read then it’s “monetary” worth.  And the reality is that a bookstore usually needs to carry 100 books to sell one.  That turnover rate would be a dismal failure in any other “widget” industry, but that’s the reality.   Not because no one wants the books but because matching books to people is unique and it takes time. Different readers like different things at different times.  The exact same book can be worth 50 cents or $15 depending on the place and situation where it is sold.  A book in a pile of boxes is a bargain that you stumble across, a book that is exactly what you were looking for right now, is worth quite a bit more.    Part of the art of Bookselling is trying to “predict” what people will like and investing in the “right” stock which changes constantly.  A good bookstore houses, orders,  processes, and displays many types of books tying up thousands and thousands of dollars in the hopes of selling a fraction of the stock.  Books are NOT like commodities  that must turnover every 6 months or be thrown away. Often books actually ripen with age and become more valuable over time.

But we are in a throwaway culture where everything has a dollar value –  time, space, information, and objects.  And a rush to cut costs.   Virtual objects are “cheaper”.  They do not have to be moved or stored, they don’t cost money to make or use up raw materials to produce, the can be easily shared or purchased in seconds, etc.  Wheres, “real” objects, especially archival, older,  heavy, fragile, or not easily disposed of items are expensive.   They clutter our lives, cost to store, move, or dispose of.  They take up our time.  They take up room on a small planet.  So logically books are doomed. Right?

I would argue with a story.  Books (and bookstores) are either Worthless or Priceless depending on who holds them or the world one wants to live in.   I compare a large book collection to a White Elephant or a Siberian Tiger.   These animals are beautiful, irreplaceable, and Endangered, Rare.   There is the classic story of  African rulers giving a Precious White Elephant to another ruler as a sign of great respect and power, but giving them to an enemy because the animals cost more in upkeep then their “value”.  It is an interesting comparison with not a small amount of parallels to your grandmothers book collection !  But take the story further.   There are many things in our culture that are “too” expensive – that cost a lot to keep – historic buildings,  wilderness areas, art, beautiful places, family farms,  free time,  many of the beloved things from our past are now “too expensive”.   Real elephants and tigers,  as well as many other unique animals are almost extinct because  it doesn’t make economic sense to preserve their habitats.  Many of the worlds most precious resources are being destroyed or abandoned,  or are dying because no one cares enough to preserve them.  Does this now include bookstores too?  Do you really want to live in a world without bookstores, or are they a community resource that should be preserved and cherished for the next generation to experience and enjoy.  We cannot do this alone.  Thank you for supporting our Kickstarter, please spread the word and support bricks and mortar bookstores in your community.  

Anyway, I hope I haven’t bored you with my rambling.  Perhaps it can spark some discussion.  Please let me know what you think.  Please help us continue our work. Thank you.

—  Michelle Barron, bookseller

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Post-Dispatch: Book House Poised for move to Maplewood

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Post-Dispatch: Book House Poised for move to Maplewood

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The Book House “One of Missouri’s Most Endangered Places for 2013”

The Book House – One of Missouri’s Most Endangered Historic Places in 2013

 

 

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The Book House’s Future: A quick update

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[30th April update: We’ve been mentioned on boingboing.net, and an article by Robin Tidwell]

Well, it’s been a busy weekend.

For those of you not aware of recent events, a quick summary. Last week we let everyone know that a developer had plans to demolish The Book House to make way for a four story storage facility. This, to say the least, was upsetting.

What was comforting to find out was the sheer amount of support and messages we’ve gotten since letting everyone know this. Our Facebook page has been filled with messages from local customers and businesses, people have been mentioning us on Twitter, and generally, people have been acting so wonderfully that it brings a tear to the eye.

It appears this support has not gone unnoticed, either.

The Riverfront Times have picked up the story and interviewed Michelle, the developers, and local officials, and the developers (Great Northern Development llc) are now stating that everything so far is very preliminary and they’re very prepared to work with us.

Publishers Weekly has also picked up the story, and has their president, Bill Bowman, stating that  “absolutely no plan has been made on that house,”, “We’re going to work with her to try and find a solution,” and “The bottom line is, she wants to stay open and we want her to stay open.”

In other words, great news. This is a much more promising position to be in, and we suspect this statement is very much influenced by the public show of support we’ve received from you all. Whether we’re out of the woods or not yet remains to be seen, but all of us at the store would like to thank everyone who’s stopped by,  commented online showing their thanks, or just rallied round generally. It’s greatly appreciated.

We will, of course, keep you up to date with any further developments; this certainly isn’t over yet, but things are certainly starting to look a little more optimistic.

How you can still help:

Follow us online – if you aren’t already. We’re on Facebook and Twitter are above, and you can sign up for our newsletter on our website. And of course, there’s this blog, though if you’re reading this, you likely already know about that. You may be reading this because someone shared this post, though, which brings us to point 2:

Let everyone you know, know – Feel free to share this, our Facebook posts, the articles in the media, anything you like. Put them on your blog, share them with friends, let anyone know who you think would be interested. Then get them to share with their friends. The final decision as to what happens with The Book House will very much be influenced by how public opinion is perceived, and the more visible support we have, the stronger our position will be.

Sign the petition – A special thanks here to local author Robin Tidwell here, who quickly started a petition over at change.org. To date, this has gathered over 500 signatures and is still rising at a fair old clip. The petition can found here, please sign it if you haven’t already, and again, share the link with anyone you know.

If you’re not much of an online person, or you’d prefer to leave a phone message, you can contact Mr Bowen at Northern Developers on (586) 703-9882 or (734) 996-9979, or Rock Hill City Hall on  (314) 968-1410. We were also encouraging people to attend the town hall meeting originally scheduled for May 8th, though the date on this may have changed. We’ll keep you up to date regarding this. And finally:

It’s business as usual – Despite all the turmoil, we’re still here, and we hope we’re not going away any time soon. We’re open our usual business hours, selling new, used and collectible books, we can ship orders anywhere in the world, and if we don’t have the book you’re looking for, we can order it.

We also have various events coming up in May, from author signings to our now regular Poetry Night every second Thursday of the month. And we’re still accepting book donations for Second Chapter Life Center and charities we support.

Drop by and have a browse any time, we’d love to see you.

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Happy Birthday Terry Pratchett (and the Discworld)!

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Happy Birthday to Terry Pratchett, who turns 65 today. Before the advent of JK Rowling and Harry Potter, Terry was the singlemost bestselling living author in the UK, and is the only author to have gotten a map into the number one bestseller slot. Despite suffering from a rare form of Alzheimers that leaves him unable to type, Terry continues to produce novels via dictation and word-recognition software, and recently started a collaborative series of novels with Steven Baxter.

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April also marks the 30th anniversary of his best known works, the Discworld series, set on a flat world which sails through space on the back of a giant turtle. What started as a gentle parody of traditionally fantasy works like Fitz Leiber and Robert E Howard has, over the years, become more of a mirror to our own world, and the humour has only gotten better and better. The fortieth book in the series (yes, that’s four-zero) is due out later this year.

Many happy returns to Terry and the Disc!

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Final weekend for book clearance sale!

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We mentioned this on our Facebook page, but just in case you weren’t aware, today is the last day of our clearance booksale. There’s still some great books available, but today is the last chance for a while to fill a bag for $10. We’re open till 8pm, so stop by!

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Open Poetry Reading Night

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To celebrate National Poetry Month, the Book House is holding an Open Poetry Reading Night on Thursday, April 11th, at 7pm!

Feel free to stop by and read a few of your own poems, or just come and relax and listen to local poets.

The event is free and open to the public; All ages welcome!

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Too Many Books: The perils of working in a bookstore

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I read a lot. I tend to have at least two books on the go at once, sometimes three or four, and flip between them haphazardly. My tastes are fairly wide, and I consider myself pretty well-read.

Or I did, until I started working at the Book House.

I was always notionally aware that were an awful lot of books in the world. The last person who could make a reasonable claim to have read all the books that were available to read in the world was probably Benjamin Franklin; the sheer volume of works being published have overtaken the amount that any one person could read in a lifetime a long, long time ago.

Consider this. I’m 40 years old at the time of writing. I could reasonably expect to live another forty years, lifestyle withstanding. That’s 14,600 days of life left (we’ll not count leap years). If I could read one book a day, every day, for the rest of life, that’s just under 15,000 books I could read.

That’s about 1/4 of the books we have catalogued online at the store. And under one tenth of the books we actually have on the shelves. What we have in the store, of course, is a small fraction of the books currently in print. Which, in turn, is only a small fraction of the books that are out there, in print or out of print.

Even though our store only has a ‘mere’ fraction of the books in the world, they’re still a very physical reminder that there an awful lot of books available. New visitors tend to boggle at the shelves and shelves of volumes, reaching from floor to ceiling, covering every wall (and often expanding out and claiming floor space). These are books that, in a very real sense, are sitting there waiting for you to pick them up and read them, like a polite reminder that you had something you were meant to be doing.

And working in such a place, of course, means you’re confronted with all these expectant books every single day. It’s slightly unnerving. It makes me want to complain to the management. Not the management of the store, but the management of Life, the Universe, and Everything. I feel like I should get a couple more centuries to make some headway on all these stories. Were there a Heaven, I would expect it to have very full bookshelves. I would find it hard to consider it heaven if it didn’t.

In more reasonable, down to earth terms, I’m not trying to read one book a day every day for the rest of my life. I have signed up for a challenge of 75 books by the end of the year at Goodreads. This seemed a reasonable figure to try, and so far I’m not so terribly behind on my schedule.

I’m certainly not lacking for suggestions for what to read while I’m working at the store, and the books are coughing politely, tempting me to take them home.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Dave has
read 9 books toward his goal of 75 books.
hide
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Tom Wolfe’s Birthday

Happy birthday to Tom Wolfe, prolific American author probably best known for The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He celebrates his 82nd birthday today, and is still writing. Many happy returns, Tom!

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Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere coming to radio

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere will be please to hear that that a date has been announced for the upcoming radio series. Starring names such as James McEvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Christopher Lee, the first episode will be airing at 6pm GMT (12pm Central) on March 16th on BBC Radio 4. Most of you probably aren’t in the UK, but you can listen to the show live on Radio 4’s website worldwide.

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